Along with China and Russia, Canada has the most competitive pairs teams in skating. Any of the top six teams can reach the podium on any particular day. The depth of the Canadian pairs scene is evidenced by the fact that the reigning Canadian pairs champions, Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin, were only fourth in Canada in 2003. They are hoping to retain their position on top of the podium as the 2006 Olympics nears. In head-to-head competitions since the 2004 Canadians, Marcoux and Buntin placed higher than their main rivals, Canadian silver medallists Anabelle Langlois and Patrice Archetto, at Four Continents, third versus fifth, but lower at Worlds, ninth versus eighth. So the battle looks close.
This season, Marcoux and Buntin also finished fifth at Skate Canada, third at the Cup of China and second at the Bofrost Cup, even though they have both been slowed by injuries. “I was off the ice for two weeks and not at full strength for another three or four weeks this summer,” Buntin explained. “It was a non-skating injury, of course. I was fishing barefoot and slipped off a rock and dislocated my big toe really badly. I still don’t have a toenail there. Marcoux has also been suffering from a lingering shoulder injury during the fall.
Both of the skaters are strong supporters of the new judging system. “We love it,” Buntin said. “It’s the best thing to happen to the sport in a long time. We look at the sheets after every competition to see where we can change the choreography, but we don’t look at anyone’s marks during the event. No matter what the marks, a clean program is still a clean program and that’s what we want to accomplish.”
“We have our own plan for each program and we stick to it,” Marcoux added. “We wouldn’t try to upgrade or downgrade our programs based on what other skaters did. In pairs, if you change just one arm position, it can change everything else in your program and throw everything off.” They plan only minor changes throughout the rest of the season, mainly increasing the levels of their pairs spins and adding more difficult entrances and exits from other elements.
The couple began skating together in the summer of 2002 after Marcoux split with Bruno Marcotte, with whom she finished 12th at the 2002 World Championships and fourth at the 2002 Canadian Nationals. Buntin, who formerly skated with Chantal Poirier, was also looking for a new partner. Since he and Marcoux had been a couple off ice for several years, they asked their coach to skate together and the pairing immediately clicked.
Marcoux comes from a skating family. Her mother was a figure skater, her father played hockey and her sister did synchro. “My sister was skating so my mom put me into it instead of having me just sitting in the stands,” Marcoux said. “I was about three.” She competed in singles until 1999, finishing fifth in juniors at Canadians in her last season. She landed her first double axel and triple toe loop when she was 15, but had had trouble with edge jumps. “I’m much better with toe jumps,” she said. “I wanted to do pairs since I was 12. I did a little bit of juvenile pairs, but there were no pairs in my home club. Since it was my dream to do pairs, I moved to train with Paul Wirtz because he was looking for partners.”
Buntin started when he was ten. “I wanted to play hockey so I went to Learn to Skate classes so I could skate when I began hockey,” he stated, “but then I never played hockey. There was a girl at the club who was looking for a pairs partner and since I was the only guy there, I was it.” He skated singles for a while, but only to the Sectionals before concentrating on pairs. He landed his first triple, a triple toe loop, at 15. “It’s still my best jump,” he said.”
Marcoux and Buntin train in Montreal with Richard Gauthier and Manon Peron. “We train for about five hours a day, five days a week,” Buntin said. “Our main training with Richard and Manon takes about three hours, working with all the elements like lifts and jumps. Then we work with Julie Marcotte for about two hours every day, concentrating on using our knees, stroking and generally improving our skating skills. It’s a real team approach.” They do complete run-throughs of both their short and long program every day. “It makes it easier when we compete,” Marcoux said. She likes working on throws the best, while he prefers perfecting new lifts.
The skaters also do a lot of off ice work in the afternoons. “We do a lot of ballet and stretching,” Marcoux said. “I’ve always had very tight muscles. When I was younger, all I wanted to do was jump and skate fast and now I’m paying for it. You’ll never see me doing a Biellmann spin. But I can already do some things I couldn’t do before. We were always fast skaters, now were trying to be flexible too.”
The skaters use two Julies as choreographers – Marcotte and Breault. Marcotte choreographed their short program to “Fever” and “Jump, Jive and Wail” and their exhibition program, Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” sung by Billy Joel. Breault designed their long program to “Moscow Nights”, “Meadowlands”, and “Khorobushko” by Bond. “Richard picked out the music for our long program,” Marcoux said. “He thought it suited us because we’re always dancing around. We actually got started late in the season. We had some music that was OK, but not what we really wanted.”
“We like to skate to anything fast,” Buntin added, “something that gets us going as fast as we can.” “We expect to change both of our programs for the Olympic season,” Buntin continued. “We usually like to have new programs every year. As our skating skills keep growing, we need to grow our programs to match.” “I like to have new programs every year,” Marcoux agreed. “That way you don’t get bored with doing the same ones all the time.”
An unusual aspect of their long program is that the costumes were designed around his outfit, not hers. Most of the time, the ladies’ dresses are done first and then, the man gets costumes to match her. “The long shirt I wear in the long is all decorated by hand,” Buntin said. “When we were looking for costumes, we saw it hanging in the shop and it fit perfectly. The seamstress had made the costume for her son, but he never wore it. You’d never get that kind of detail on something otherwise. So we decided to make Valerie’s dress match my costume.
Both skaters have graduated from high school, but said that college was on hold for now. Buntin has done a lot of web programming. He plans to go to the university later on, probably working in the computer field, but plans to continue to be involved in skating. Marcoux already has her Level 1 coaching certificate, but said that she wasn’t currently teaching because “It’s too much to be at the rink all day every day.” Buntin noted that they hope to take some more courses “as soon as we’re doing well enough to survive in skating without having to work too much at other jobs.” Marcoux now works as a waitress, while Buntin works 15-20 hours a week at a skate shop in Montreal.”
Off ice, Buntin said, “Val has a real passion for cooking and I have a passion for eating. We’re both big movie buffs. We like to rent videos and stay home to watch them.” “I like girlie movies and he likes B movies that were made cheap,” Marcoux said. “We have a big collection of them.” Buntin is also a music buff, who even worked on an Internet website to spotlight local Toronto music and likes to go to live shows. But Marcoux admitted, “Music’s not a big thing for me. I don’t listen to a lot off ice.”
They keep some of the special toys they receive, especially if they have notes, but donate the others to children’s hospitals. Both skaters listed Paris as the favorite place they had visited. “Europe was new and different for us,” Marcoux said. “Now I’d like to go to Italy. I also like to go down south and to Florida for fun.”
Although they are currently focusing on making the Olympics in 2006, the couple plans to continue competing until 2010. “”Not too many people get to do the Olympics in their home town,” said the Vancouver-born Buntin.